8th Jun 2023


2001: September 11 and the female Danish Imam

  • Sherin Khankan: 'We are the first mosque in Scandinavia that conducts interfaith marriages.' (Photo: Sherin Khankan)

Sherin Khankan is a 45-year old mother of four. She is also Denmark's first female Imam and runs the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen.

"We are the first mosque in Scandinavia that conducts interfaith marriages," she told EUobserver.

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The daughter of a Syrian political refugee and a Finnish mother, Khankan says Muslim women must be allowed to marry whoever they choose, regardless of religious beliefs.

"We also give Muslim women the right to Islamic divorce and have made a fusion between Danish legislation and Islamic guidance - in the sense that we do not marry people in a mosque, unless they are married through Danish law," she explains.

Khankan's idea for the female-led mosque came a month before two passenger planes slammed into the Twin Towers in New York City in September 2001.

It would take her another 15 years to make it a reality.

Twenty-six years old at the time of the attacks, Khankan had in August of 2001 set up the first Muslim organisation with a female Muslim leadership in Denmark.

The organisation was called the Forum for Critical Muslims, and sought to draw a clear distinction between religion and politics in the hopes of creating a better and more progressive understanding of Islam in Europe.

But the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 changed all that. The two jets that destroyed the lower Manhattan landmarks killed almost 3,000 people and injured over 20,000.

And despite Saudi nationals being behind the terrorist attack, US president George W. Bush then launched a protracted war against Iraq in 2003 under the false pretence it was harbouring weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein's brutal reign over the country would come to an end three years later, leaving in place a power vacuum that helped give rise to the Islamic State.

The Islamic State would later claim responsibility for a spate of attacks in Europe, killing innocent people in numerous cities over the past decade or so.

Mainstream and far-right politicians would then parlay those attacks as further justification to stigmatise Muslims and immigrant communities.

Lawmakers also took the opportunity to pass sweeping surveillance laws, often blurring the distinction between fundamental rights and discrimination.

For Muslims like Khankan in Europe, the collapse of the Twin Towers created an unjustified and intensified blowback against Islam.

"It was quite massive, the anti-Islamic rhetoric and propaganda," she said.

Khankan rues the fact that all the work started in August of 2001 for a more progressive understanding of Islam had come to a standstill.

"We suddenly had to shift focus onto defending the right even to be a Muslim, so I could really sense a change with September 11th," she said.

Nearly 20 years later, and that dynamic has since shifted, she said, noting the renewed interest in Islam also brought with it more understanding of the religion.

"You can identify it in two ways, a growing anti-Islam rhetoric, and propaganda, and Islamophobia - but also a growing knowledge about Islam," she said.

Among that "rhetoric and propaganda" was a wider debate on women in Europe who wear the Niqab and the Burka, garments that either cover the whole face or most of it.

"In Denmark, I think less than 200 [women] wear the Niqab, and fewer still wear the Burka," she said.

Similar debates led to a ban in France in 2010, then followed by Belgium.

"I think it is discriminatory against these women, and actually we are not defending women's rights by discriminating [against] some women," she said.

Defending universal human rights, says Khankan, also means fighting for a women's right not to have to wear a niqab or a burka.

"But if it is an individual decision, I mean we absolutely have to defend it," she said.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.


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